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Augustus

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A brilliant and beautifully written novel in the tradition of Robert Graves, Augustus is a sweeping narrative that brings vividly to life a compelling cast of historical figures through their letters, dispatches, and memoirs.

A mere eighteen years of age when his uncle, Julius Caesar, is murdered, Octavius Caesar prematurely inherits rule of the Roman Republic. Surrounded by men who are jockeying for power–Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony–young Octavius must work against the powerful Roman political machinations to claim his destiny as first Roman emperor. Sprung from meticulous research and the pen of a true poet, Augustus tells the story of one man’s dream to liberate a corrupt Rome from the fancy of the capriciously crooked and the wildly wealthy.

336 pages, Paperback

First published October 31, 1972

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About the author

John Williams

16 books1,479 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

John Edward Williams, Ph.D. (University of Missouri, 1954; M.A., University of Denver, 1950; B.A., U. of D., 1949), enlisted in the USAAF early in 1942, spending two and a half years as a sergeant in India and Burma. His first novel, Nothing But the Night, was published in 1948, and his first volume of poems, The Broken Landscape, appeared the following year.

In the fall of 1955, Williams took over the directorship of the creative writing program at the University of Denver, where he taught for more than 30 years.

After retiring from the University of Denver in 1986, Williams moved with his wife, Nancy, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he resided until he died of respiratory failure on March 3, 1994. A fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason, was left unfinished at the time of his death.

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Profile Image for Cecily.
1,096 reviews3,844 followers
February 21, 2019
How to describe this painstakingly detailed, compellingly readable, simply complex, fictionalised biography, that explores the high price of duty, and is set in ancient times but is painfully relevant in 2017? Not like that.

There are myriad perspectives: it’s like viewing the ancient world through a kaleidoscope or the facets of a gemstone.

Or maybe it’s more like a hall of mirrors and windows, where you’re barely sure which is which and what distortions there may be. Versailles, perhaps: another palace of opulence and intrigue.

It is non-linear: like a narrative tapestry, sewn with backstitch.

It’s a scrapbook of documents and fragments in different styles, and for different purposes (a little like the Bible).

There’s a woman’s sexual awakening: her acknowledgement and embracing of it, regardless of taboos and risks.

An adoring father ensures his daughter has the education usually denied to girls.

There is an agonising sacrifice, a cruel example of being hoist by one’s own petard.

The storytelling is like Charon’s gently rocking boat, like Augustus’ final journey: the shimmering reflections are disorienting, and the direction is unpredictable, but the destination is sure.

Content and Structure

The story starts just before the murder of Julius Caesar, leaving his great nephew and adopted son, Gaius Octavius, as heir. He is young (18), academic rather than martial, with slightly poor health, quietly spoken, inscrutable, loyal to friends, but is shrewd. The story ends when Octavius, now Emperor Augustus, dies aged 76. In between there are complex machinations: rumours, political plots, wars, marriages and divorces of convenience, births, deaths, assassinations, friendships forged and broken, rituals, parties, and journeys - literal and metaphorical.

It is told via letters, memoirs, poems, military orders, doctor’s orders, journals, memos, senatorial proceedings, consular orders, petitions, and poems. They are from a wide variety of protagonists, some written at the time, and others with the benefit of hindsight: all the key events, and many apparently trivial ones, are described by friend and foe, as they happened, and immediately contrasted by another view, written decades later. No one is objective. (I have not investigated where it departs from or adds to authenticated history.)

There are three parts. The first is mostly political scheming and battle tactics, told and spun by men. The second gives voice to many of the women, especially Augustus’ adult daughter, Julia. There’s still political and domestic intrigue, and some male narrative, but there’s a more human and intensely personal face as well. In the short third part, we finally hear from the eponymous emperor as he evaluates his long life and anticipates his imminent death and the consequences for his empire and people.

Julia

I had been a wife, a goddess, and the second woman of Rome. If I felt anything [about being widowed]… it was relief.

This book could just as easily have borne the name of Augustus’ daughter. It’s almost as much about her, and we read far more of her words than his. She sometimes wields influence and lies to her own advantage (as well as being a victim of such), but because we hear her through her private journal, she seems the most honest of anyone. We understand her motives and her desires. Especially her desires. I came to love Julia.

This body… began its service late, for it was told that it had no rights, and must by the nature of things be subservient to dictates other than its own.

A breeze… I could hear it rustle among the cypresses and plane trees as it touched my silken tunic like a caress.

This body… has served me, while seeming to serve others… and the lover to whom I gave pleasure was a victim of my own desire.

Duty, Destiny, and Personal Pain

Power and wealth come with a price. The plot is full of manipulation, sometimes selfish and sometimes altruistic, but the deeper theme is the huge personal cost of submitting to fate and duty.

Augustus’ sister Octavia, married and remarried at her brother’s dictat, says “I sometimes think that the meanest slave has more freedom than we women have known.” But another woman, closer to the emperor's heart suffers more. And Augustus himself, nearing death, believes his life “accommodated to… public necessity” and thus, “I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.” I'm not sure if he makes final peace with his role in the fate of his beloved daughter.

Truth and Lies: Then and in 2017

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable - and yet who, out of animal energy and the accident of circumstance, has attained the most frightening power?” (Maecenas of Marcus Antonius)

I read this as Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States and when the news was full of discussion and fear about temperament, power, and truth versus "alternative facts"

Sometimes people knowingly defend and spread outright lies for their own benefit. Here, that’s Augustus accepting Marcus Antonius’s description of his Parthian disaster as a triumph. The hope was that he would desert Egypt (and Cleopatra) to become a true Roman again, and the need was to inspire citizens ground down by years of war and civil war.

Everyone has an agenda, whether it be mere survival or something more selfish and acquisitive, and motives change with circumstances. How can one know what is true and who to trust?

No surprise that in old age, Augustus thinks all histories “are lies… There are no untruths… few errors of fact; but they are lies”. Reading of himself, he sees “a man who bore my name but a man I hardly know.” Thus, “All lives are mysterious, I suppose, even my own.”

"He discovered in all others those vices he would not recognise in himself."
Julia, on Livia's son, Tiberius. Or possibly contemporary political commentary.

Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing - and his fourth/first book

John Williams wrote three brilliant, but very different novels (plus a youthful novella he later disowned).

They’re ostensibly about complex relationships between men, but in utterly different settings. This is about politics and war in ancient Rome. Women’s power is mostly covert. Butcher’s Crossing is a bildungsroman about a privileged 19 century young man on a long and perilous buffalo hunt. Women barely feature. Stoner is about a quiet man who loves and lives for literature in academia. The few women in it are seen from the perspective of and in relation to men. That makes the strong female narrative in Augustus all the more surprising. But here, as in Stoner, the intense and devoted father-daughter relationship of childhood is tragically sacrificed: the lesser of several evils, for the greater good.

See the end of my review of his first (disowned) novel, Nothing But The Night, HERE, for a comparison of all four.

Philosophical Quotes

• “If it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself.”
• “A man may live like a fool for a year, and become wise in a day.”
• “The death of an old enemy is curiously like the death of an old friend.”
• “To care not for oneself is of little moment, but to care not for those whom one has loved is another matter. All has become a matter of indifferent curiosity, and nothing is of consequence.”
• “Erotic love is the most unselfish… it seeks to become one with another, and hence to escape the self.”
• “A people may endure an almost incredible series of darkest failures without breaking; but give them respite and some hope for the future, and they may not endure an unexpected denial of that hope.”
• “Those [anti-adultery] laws… were not intended so much to be obeyed as to be followed; I believed that there was no possibility of virtue without the idea of virtue.”

• Perspective changes with maturity:
“The young man... sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey... where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality...
The man of middle years... sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail… and has learned that he is mortal...
But the man of age... must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and failures merge.”

Quotes about Rome

• “Rome, where no man knows his enemy or his friend, where license is more admired than virtue, and where principle has become servant to self.”
• “The appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos.”
• “Even their gods serve the state, rather than the other way round.”
• “Copulation has become an act designed to obtain power, either social or political; an adulterer may be more dangerous than a conspirator, both to your person and his country.”
• “I have conquered the world, and none of it is secure.” (Julius Caesar)

Other Quotes

• “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.”
• “History will not know the truth, if history ever can.”
• “I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted.”
• “Thinking that allusive loquacity is subtlety.”
• “She was cold, and thus could feign warmth with utter success.”

There Could Have Been More

Apparently, the only writing advice his wife ever gave him was "You have gone on too long. You need to stop sooner." - about this book, and he took her advice! See this interview with Nancy Gardner Williams: HERE.
Profile Image for Swrp.
561 reviews89 followers
November 1, 2021
This was, after Stoner and Butcher's Crossing, my 3rd John Williams!
I have started reading Augustus on the 99th birth anniversary of John Williams (this was a perfect time to read the next Williams' masterpiece).


[John Edward Williams, August 29, 1922 - March 3, 1994.]
💐🌺🏵️🌱☘️ 💐

•|•

From the Introduction:

"John Williams's four novels are so different from one another in subject matter, setting and time that it has been said that they could pass for the work of four different writers."

"Williams held to the belief that to read anything without joy or pleasure was stupid, that a novel or poem was there to be experienced rather than to be understood or explicated."

•|•

The Book:

Augustus is written in the epistolary form [*Epistolary: in the form of letters, journal entries, clippings or other documents]. Hence, this book is 'different' and was a wee bit difficult at the start. But, after the first few chapters, it became very interesting. It was like being among the waves of the ocean - ‘waves with feelings’ that were mostly harsh, rude, gentle, selfish, soothing, funny, intimate, upset and few of them were inspiring and hopeful. It also felt as if being in the front row of a theatre and watching a stage play with many characters who kept coming one at a time and pouring their heart out.


[Statue of Augustus, wikipedia.org.]

Augustus is, primarily, the life story of Augustus Caesar [born September 23, 63 BC - died August 19, 14 AD], the first Roman emperor, whose original name was Gaius Octavius. However, this book has the voices of many people who are directly and indirectly connected to Augustus Caesar. It can be said that Caesar is the central character of this book, he is the Sun with many of the other characters such as Caesar's family, friends, rivals and subjects revolving around him like the planets.

This book is about the need to choose courage, sacrifice, honour by realising your destiny and finding the desire for greatness. It is about being an individual who is ready to test himself over and over for a lifetime - it is about life.

-Are you ready to embrace greatness by changing yourself, preparing yourself, subjecting yourself?
-Do you believe in the destiny of greatness or a fate of mediocrity?
-Are you willing to pay the price and make the sacrifices?

John Williams masterfully delivers answers to these questions in Augustus.

In 44 BC, on a particular day in March, four friends were resting on a hill in a place called Apollonia. A horseman comes over with an important message for one of the friends, Octavius, a message from his mother that says about his adopted father and uncle, Julius Caesar, being murdered by the Senators of Rome. All the four friends were shocked, however, it is to be noted how Octavius displays calmness and also realises his destiny in this moment of grief. Thus, begins the momentous and extraordinary journey of a 19-year-old kid who will become an emperor!

•|•

Of Augustus:

"I thought him a pleasant stripling, no more, with a face too delicate to receive the blows of fate, with a manner too diffident to achieve purpose, and with a voice too gentle to utter the ruthless words that a leader of men must utter. I thought that he might become a scholar of leisure, or a man of letters; I did not think that he had the energy to become even a senator, to which his name and wealth entitled him."

“Late into the night the only sound that could be heard was the lap and hiss of water against the burning hulls and the low moans of the wounded; a glow of burning hung over the harbor, and Caesar Augustus, his face stark and reddened in that glow, stood at the prow of his ship and looked upon the sea that held the bodies of those brave men, both comrade and foe, as if there were no difference between them.”

“For Octavius Caesar is Rome; and that, perhaps, is the tragedy of his life. Oh, Strabo, if the truth were known, I feel that his life is over; in these past few years he has endured more than any man ought to endure.”

“Almost like a philosopher, he is without faith in the old gods of his countrymen; yet almost like a peasant, he is extraordinarily superstitious.”



•|•

Thus spake Augustus!::

"It was more nearly an instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one's destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself."

”Though I probably could not have articulated it then, I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world.”

”And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the crudest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.”

“The soldier who has chosen war for his profession in the midst of battle longs for peace, and in the security of peace hungers for the clash of sword and the chaos of the bloody field; the slave who sets himself against his unchosen servitude and by his industry purchases his freedom, then binds himself to a patron more cruel and demanding than his master was; the lover who abandons his mistress lives thereafter in his dream of her imagined perfection.”

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”

“...and for a while, convinced of the brotherhood of man and beast, I refused to eat any flesh, and felt for my horse a kinship that I had not dreamed possible.”

”I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself.”


•|•

From the notes:


"It is the world of Rome, where no man knows his enemy or his friend, where license is more admired than virtue, and where principle has become servant to self."
==========
It is odd to wait in a powerless world, where nothing matters. In the world from which I came, all was power; and everything mattered. One even loved for power; and the end of love became not its own joy, but the myriad joys of power.
==========
The conceit that the gods had separated land from land by the unimaginable depths of ocean so that the peoples in those lands might be distinct, and man in his foolhardiness launches his frail bark upon an element that ought not to be touched.
==========
The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility —which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it.


•|•

And finally::

The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel — John Williams::


[Source: ft.com]


Dear John Williams, thank you kindly, for Stoner, Butcher`s Crossing and Augustus. You have provided a memorable, outstanding and masterful literary experience and this shall be cherished and valued until the end of time. You are requested to accept the heartfelt and sincere apologies and pardon us for not appreciating your writings and literature whilst you were still here. It is a promise that you shall be dearly and profoundly missed.
-truly and sincerely, your loving reader.


I make the soldier's vow - you lead, and we shall go together, both ready to slog the road that ends all roads.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,102 reviews1,594 followers
December 7, 2022
I BARBARI ASPETTANO

description
Qui, e a seguire, rappresentazioni scultoree di Gaio Giulio Cesare Ottaviano Augusto, il primo imperatore romano, dal 27 A.C. al 14 D.C.

Dalle note d'autore:
Alcuni errori di fatto, in questo libro, sono voluti. Ho modificato l’ordine di numerosi avvenimenti. Ho inventato là dove i dati storici sono incerti o incompleti. E ho creato alcuni personaggi cui la Storia non fa cenno… Tranne poche eccezioni, i documenti che formano questo romanzo sono inventati… Ma se in questo lavoro sono presenti delle verità, sono le verità della narrativa più che della Storia. Sarò grato a quei lettori che lo accoglieranno per quello che vuole essere: un’opera dell’immaginazione.
Questo si legge all’inizio, e non alla fine, dell’opera.
E già questo dovrebbe convincere a lasciar perdere l’attendibilità storica, il confronto testo-a-fronte.
Come se non bastasse, Williams scrive:
Ma la Storia non conosce la verità, ammesso che la Storia possa mai conoscerla.

E forse è stato proprio questo a spingere il filologo e storico Luciano Canfora a bocciare il romanzo di Williams proprio sul piano della veridicità storica – con inutile puntiglio accademico, con una serie di motivazioni che lasciano il tempo che trovano.

description

Williams imbastisce la sua narrazione con una collazione di testi e fonti: carteggi, diari, testimonianze, documenti ufficiali.

Per oltre trecento pagine Augusto esiste solo attraverso quello che di lui riportano coloro che lo hanno conosciuto, frequentato, amato, servito, ubbidito, temuto, combattuto, tradito.
Il collage si compone di molte voci, sfalsate nel tempo, oppure contemporanee ai fatti: toni diversi, punti di vista diversi, angolazioni diverse, piani temporali diversi.

Un coro di voci che racconta bene il tempo e il protagonista, in certi momenti costruendo perfino suspense, in altri regalando autentiche sorprese (su tutte, la descrizione di Roma che fa Strabone al suo amico Nicolao di Damasco, una città 43 anni prima della nascita di cristo che fa venire in mente la Ville Lumière, e anche la Grande Mela).

description

Augusto fu investito dalla Storia che era ancora adolescente: il suo corpo fragile fu una costante che sconsigliava dal ritenerlo duraturo.
Eppure, nonostante le frequenti malattie, si sottopose a fatiche non comuni: oltre le battaglie, le vittorie, le conquiste, riportò pace unità e diritto a Roma, donandole quarant’anni di stabilità e prosperità.

Questo, la lunga pace, fu il suo più grande successo: il suo poema, paragonabile a quelli degli amici poeti, letterati, filosofi con cui amava intrattenersi (Virgilio, Orazio, Ovidio….).

description

Peccato che la terza parte del libro sia totalmente diversa dalle prime due, poliedriche, agili, leste, leggere, spedite, snelle… La terza è un blocco monolitico, un'unica lunga lettera di Augusto, quarantacinque pagine di cui davvero non sentivo il bisogno. C’era già tutto, non mi pare che la diretta voce di Augusto aggiunga dettagli o novità.

Come mi è già successo, un autore che mi ha regalato letture meravigliose (Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing) mi delude parzialmente proprio nella sua opera più famosa e premiata (National Book Award).

I barbari aspettano. Ma Roma non cadrà davanti a loro, cadrà alla fine davanti a quel barbaro cui nessuno si sottrae… il Tempo.

description
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,376 reviews3,199 followers
April 17, 2020
Augustus is written in lucid and colourful style. Inventing all those fictional letters and documents John Williams vividly caught the spirit of the whole historical era.
Perhaps we are wiser when we are young, though the philosopher would dispute with me. But I swear to you, we were friends from that moment onward; and that moment of foolish laughter was a bond stronger than anything that came between us later – victories or defeats, loyalties or betrayals, griefs or joys. But the days of youth go, and part of us goes with them, not to return.

On arriving to power very young, Gaius Octavius Caesar hit the road lying across the endless battlefield…
Down through the ages the history of political power is a history of perfidy and treason…
“Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe that it has,” he said. “We both must believe that it has.”

Supreme power doesn’t make one happy but it offers an unrestricted ability to bring unhappiness to the others…
Profile Image for Dolors.
518 reviews2,143 followers
June 26, 2016
This is more than a lush recreation of the nuanced menace of diplomatic skirmishing and Machiavellian intrigue, public guilelessness and carnage that gave birth to the Roman Empire under the ruling of its first Emperor.
This is more than a walk through the path of history because it takes unusual detours of borrowed memories penned by secondary historical figures that surrounded Octavius Caesar Augustus.
Delivered in a non-chronological letters that carry moments of high pathos spanning over sixty years, the image of the Caesar is multi-dimensionally painted through the colorful tapestry of manifold perspectives, and his flaws, ambitions and human incongruities are so incredibly detailed that not much is left to the imagination.
The physical and psychological portrait of the two-faceted Emperor that Williams moulds with obsessive pulchritude; invincible earthly god and torn man, is not only convincing, but also devastatingly real.
To me, Williams’ historical epic is the epitome of the epistolary genre and the resulting legacy of a supremely executed labor of love for words, poetry and humbling introspection.

“Inopem me copia fecit” , Ovid forewarns in his magnum opus Metamorphoses; something Octavius came to understand only too well right after Julius Caesar’s assassination, the fresh outbreak of civil war and the eventual foundation of the triumvirate composed of Octavius, Marcus Antonius and Aemilius Lepidus gave him the throne of the world. Besides presiding the altar of Rome Octavius was slave to his own notion of justice and freedom, becoming, in his self-demanding eyes, a botched caricature of the man he aspired to be.
Forty years of relative peace and Roman splendor ensued… but at what expense?
Can the man live up to the consequences of his acts and disguise his turmoil with the unflinching ease of the almighty sovereign?

Octavius had two lifelong love stories that cost him his soul and peace of mind.
His daughters: Rome and Julia.
The first deprived him of his free will, the second of his good judgement.
And they both ended up betraying him.
For the sake of a fiery passion, Julia conspired against her own father and was banished to the barren island of Pandeteria, condemned to become Octavius’ particular Miranda. But unlike Prospero, the ruler of the Empire couldn’t save his daughter by renouncing to his power.
Time also turned Rome against its legitimate master. It fell under the dominion of barbarian hands that tainted Octavius’ vision of a glorious future.

And yet, in the third and closing section of the book, where the aged Emperor writes to his old friend Nicolaus of Damascus, historian and philosopher, as he faces up his longest journey ever, as he recapitulates the undeniable triumphs accumulated during his public life, he embraces love as the most pure and enduring force of all without a shred of regret, spite, or self-pity.
Instead, as the sunlight caresses his wrinkled face and flecks of white foam sparkle the briny breeze, kissing the waves that slap gently against the deck of his ship, Octavius finds some symmetry in his uneven existence and reaches the comforting conclusion that like the poets Ovid, Virgil and Horace, whose artistry set them free, his torment was a privilege, his curse a blessing, and his unconditional love for Julia, and for Rome, in that precise order, were the secret catalyst that made him vulnerable… and invincible.
Like the poet for his words, like the philosopher for his doctrine, Octavius allowed himself to be disintegrated under the weight of his own contradictions for the sake of an ideal; that of peace and equal prosperity. Neither triumphant nor defeated, the man touches the divine when he is moved by the beauty of his Arcadian dreams, but never by his achievements.
Profile Image for Allen Walker.
130 reviews1,206 followers
January 1, 2023
Full review: https://youtu.be/2aWctlK7DnI

6⭐ for me. I'm not sure there's a book that has more things that are specifically for me than this one: epistolary format, ancient Roman history, John Williams's beautiful prose, complex themes and heartbreaking relationships.

I completely understand how this book would not be for everyone but for me--magnificent. Full review to come.
Profile Image for Labijose.
927 reviews386 followers
April 17, 2022
“Gracias a la labor de Octavio, Roma es ahora la ciudad más bella del mundo. ¿Por qué no van a disfrutar sus ciudadanos, llevados por los deseos de su corazón, de esa misma belleza y elegancia desconocidas hasta ahora?”

Carta de Publio Ovidio Nasón a Sexto Propertio (10 a. C.)



“El hijo de César” está narrada de principio a fin en forma de epístolas. Pero ojo, ni ordenadas cronológicamente ni por personajes. Podemos saltar del año 4 d. C. al año 39 a. C. de una página a otra. Podemos pasar de una epístola de Nicolás de Damasco dirigida a Mecenas en una página, a pasar a otra de Livia a su hijo Tiberio en la siguiente, o al diario de Julia escrito en Pandataria en el mismo capítulo. Es decir, que si esperas orden y cronología, en esta novela no lo vas a encontrar.

Suena caótico, ¿verdad? Pues al principio lo es, y mucho. Hay que darle unas cuantas páginas e incluso capítulos para poder ir pillando el hilo conductor pretendido por Williams. Pero hete aquí que, en medio de todo este caos y batiburrillo, llega un momento en el que te das cuenta que te resistes a cerrar el libro. Te ha enganchado, y ya no quieres parar de leer.

Todo comienza con la misiva de Julio César a Antia, madre de Octavio. En ella le conmina a que saque a su hijo de la vida licenciosa que lleva en Roma, enviándolo a Apolonia a estudiar con los preceptores elegidos por el propio César.
Pasamos a continuación a conocer a los amigos del alma de Octavio: Agripa, Rufo y Mecenas. Con ellos está cuando le llegan las nuevas del fallecimiento de su padre adoptivo, y del testamento en el que declara a Octavio su heredero. Sin embargo, deben de obrar con cautela. El cadáver de Julio César está aún caliente, y son muchos y muy poderosos los que intentan restaurar la república a toda costa. La vida de Octavio no vale un sestercio, salvo que sepa maniobrar con maestría y regresar a Roma de forma que nadie le pueda negar lo que por testamento le corresponde.

De ahí en adelante conoceremos su relación de amor y odio con Marco Antonio, su triunvirato junto a Lépido, y el trágico desenlace que aguarda al mencionado Marco Antonio tras su unión con Cleopatra y su derrota a manos de Octavio en Actium. A partir de ahí, Octavio ya será Augusto, y aunque intentará poner paz en el Imperio y en la propia ciudad de Roma, muchas serán las confabulaciones que intentarán que sus intenciones no lleguen a cuajar.

Entre las numerosas epístolas que componen esta maravillosa novela, me he sentido especialmente atraído por las que componen el diario de Julia (conocida como la Mayor), hija de Augusto y de su segunda esposa, Escribonia. A pesar del cariño que su padre le profesaba, se sirvió de su vida para contraer alianzas que le beneficiaban (lo lógico de la época). Primero la prometió al hijo de Marco Antonio, con el que no llegó a casarse por causa de la guerra civil entre ambos. Luego la casaría con su yerno Marco Marcelo. Más tarde con su propio amigo del alma Agripa, con el que sí tuvo descendencia y parece que le dio algo de felicidad. Finalmente, a la muerte de Agripa, la casaría con su hijastro Tiberio (futuro sucesor de Octavio). Matrimonio infeliz donde los haya, pues ni se querían ni podían verse mutuamente. Para colmo, tuvieron un hijo que no prosperó. En esa época, y a raíz de un viaje iniciático de Julia por Oriente, parece ser que comenzó la disipada vida de este desgraciado personaje, que culminaría con su destierro en Pandataria, acompañada por su madre, Escribonia. Allí, y una vez fallecido Octavio, parece ser que Tiberio pudo vengarse de ella a placer, dejándola morir por desnutrición. Su diario no tiene desperdicio.

Novela que me ha recordado enormemente al “Yo, Claudio” de Graves. Williams consigue crear de un (en principio) caótico desorden de notas un entramado de personajes y situaciones que te mete de lleno en la época. Que te arrastra inexorablemente a vivir las situaciones descritas, y a disfrutar de poco más de 300 páginas, revolcándote en ellas como cerdo en un lodazal. Magnífica novela. Cinco estrellas como cinco dioses romanos.


“ —Padre —pregunté—, ¿ha merecido la pena? Quiero decir, el poder, esta Roma a la que has salvado, esta Roma que has construido… ¿Ha merecido la pena todo lo que has tenido que hacer?
Mi padre me miró durante un largo tiempo, y después desvió la mirada.
—Debo creer que sí —dijo—. Los dos debemos creer que sí”.

Diario de Julia, Pandateria (4 d. C.)
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
February 1, 2016
“One does not deceive oneself about the consequences of one's acts; one deceives oneself about the ease with which one can live with those consequences.”
― John Williams, Augustus

description

John Williams read some Robert Graves and said, "Yeah, I got this Roman. I can do this." I'm trying to think of equivalent historical fiction that orbits the same level of prose mastery: Norman Mailer, Robert Graves, Hilary Mantel, E. L. Doctorow and a few others belong on this very short list.

There are some writers (like Pynchon, etc) who seem to find their groove and mine that style/approach for all it is worth. Others like Williams just appear to get bored with one style, form, or approach to literature. They want to master all. John Williams who is also known for his college novel Stoner and his Western Butcher's Crossing decided to give writing an epistolary, historical novel a try. What he created is one of the greatest historical novels of all time. Probably not as good as Robert Graves (or dare I say Hilary Mantel), but damn close.
Profile Image for Lynne King.
489 reviews645 followers
September 2, 2015
And yet a third perfect book by this inimitable author who was working at the very height of his powers. I now know that I will never again come across a book such as this. I actually didn’t want to finish it as I felt that I had to continue in this enthralling dream. What disturbs me, however, is the downside that when one has loved something/someone so much, those following, well to my mind anyway, will only be substitutes which in itself is rather a sad state of affairs.

As I read this book I was transported back to my university days when I was constantly taking notes but it is different here because I have resorted to 3M post- it notes which practically cover every page whenever an appropriate sentence or word has struck me.

Where can one possibly begin with this remarkable individual? This is the life of Augustus as can be seen by the cover but this isn’t an ordinary novel as it is written in the epistolary style and for the first page this did concern me but as the book progresses and develops, the fictitious memories, letters and dispatches describe a more intimate aspect of the life of the first Roman Emperor which suits this work exactly. In fact, I do not believe that this could have been achieved in any other way.

When I recall studying this period whilst at school, I found it all rather heavy to take in and actually rather bland and the textbooks were often rather tedious, the only exception being the battle of Atrium. Now that was a splendid battle indeed.

Williams admitted that he did change certain historical events from this period but he also stressed that this was a novel of his own invention. Individuals who were not covered in depth in everyday history were also brought in, such as Julia, the daughter of Augustus.

As I read Julia’s journal written on the island of Pandateria where she was in exile, the intimacy of her writing in parts was so touching that it was difficult to continue reading the text. For such a spirited and passionate woman as Julia, she must have suffered to be forced to marry three times for the convenience of Rome and for her father. Two husbands died and she was very fond of Marcus Agrippa but because of his death, she was forced to marry Tiberius. She detested him with a passion. Thus it took a while for her to conceive and shortly after the child was born, a boy, it died. After this Tiberius and Julia went their separate ways.

Julia was never to experience any form of a sensual, idealistic love and a meeting of the minds until finally a man came into her life that brought such love and passion, but who regrettably would be responsible for bringing about her own ruin.

The comment that Julia made here was so poignant for me after meeting this particular man:

No man has touched me since that afternoon. No man shall touch me for as long as I shall live.

And she would remember that up until her death.

VI. The Journal of Julia, Pandateria (A.D. 4)

In the consulships of Octavius Caesar, the August, and Marcus Plautius Silvanus, I, Julia, daughter of the Emperor, was accused before the Senate convening in Rome of adultery, and hence of the abrogation of the marriage and adultery laws that my father had passed by edict some fifteen years before. My accuser was my father. He went into great detail about my transgressions; he named my lovers, my places of assignation, the dates. In the main, the details were correct, thought there were a few unimportant names that he omitted……..He described drunken revels in the Forum and debaucheries upon the very rostrum from which he had first delivered his laws; he spoke of my frequentation of various houses of prostitution, implying that out of perversity I sold myself to anyone who would have me; and he described my visits to those unsavory bath establishments which permitted mixed bathing and encouraged all manner of licentiousness. These were exaggerated, but there was enough truth in them to make them persuasive. And at last he demanded that, in accordance with his Julian Laws, I be exiled forever from the precincts of Rome, and requested the Senate to order me placed on this Island of Pandateria, to live out the rest of my life in contemplation of my vices.

If history remembers me at all, history will remember me so. But history will not know the truth, if history ever can.

It was because Octavious Caesar truly loved his daughter and because of laws initiated by him that he had to denounce her himself, thus saving her from being executed as the Senate would have ensured. He never spoke to her again and she was never allowed to be discussed in his presence. It is not until we come to Book 3 when Octavious writes a rather long letter to an old friend, Nicolaus of Damascus (A.D. 14) that the true reasons are exposed for his behaviour towards his daughter.

As with Greek tragedies, Williams’s novels expose the process by which “what you could have done” is gradually stripped away from a character, leaving only what he did do - which is to say, the residue that is “yourself.”

The memoirs of Marcus Agrippa, a friend of Octavious for many years, are a tour de force but I was particularly taken with the correspondence of Mark Antony. His love for Cleopatra was evident but it wasn’t until the battle of Actium that he realized what she was when she saw the way the battle was turning and departed with her fleet. The following was written in one of Marcus Agrippa’s memoirs:

It was one of those curious moments in the confusion of warfare with which all soldiers are familiar. The vessel which carried Caesar Augustus and my own ship had come so close together that we could look into each other’s eyes and could even shout to be heard above the furor; not thirty yards away, where it had been pursued and then left, was the ship of Marcus Antonius. I believe that all three of us saw the purple sail of Cleopatra’s departing flagship at the same time. None of us moved; Antonious stood at the prow of his ship as if he were a carven figurehead, looking after his departing Queen. And then he turned to us, though whether he recognized either of us I do not know. His face was without expression, as if it were that of a corpse. Then his arm lifted stiffly, and dropped; and the sails were thrust into the wind, and the great ship turned slowly and gathered speed, and Marcus Antonius followed after his Queen. We watched the pitiful remains of his own ships that escaped the slaughter, and we did not attempt to pursue. I did not see Marcus Antonius again.

Maecenas introduced Octavious to poets that he would never ordinarily have met. Vergil, Horace, Cicero, etc. and this led to my searching through all my reference books for further information on them. And as for Cicero’s death, undoubtedly a very unpleasant end but I was full of admiration for this individual on how he handled this. He had style in the face of adversity.

There is no doubt that Williams has succeeded admirably by writing an epistolary novel and bringing to life this remarkable and yet very unusual Roman of his time. I’m sad though that there is only one more book of Williams to be read Nothing But the Night. His first novel, of which he was somewhat dismissive, and of which I have ordered a copy and his poetry, which regrettably I am unable to find.

As stated before, a perfect book and yet so difficult to describe. It never ceases to amaze me that when one truly loves something, it is so, so difficult to find the right words. As if it is of such a private nature, that one cannot enter within and that is indeed true of Williams, who had his own inner sanctum.
Profile Image for Vasilis Manias.
355 reviews84 followers
August 12, 2019
ΘΡΙΑΜΒΟΣ!
Δεν ξέρω ποιά είναι τα συστατικά που κάνουν ένα βιβλίο ξεχωριστό, λογικά κάθε αναγνώστης έχει τα δικά του ιδιαίτερα κριτήρια, αλλά επιτρέψτε μου να πω, ο Αύγουστος είναι ένα από τα σημαντικότερα ιστορικά μυθιστορήματα που γράφτηκαν ποτέ. Θές που έχω έναν έρωτα στη Ρώμη και στα μνημεία της; Θες που έχω άλλον έναν στο μύθο της Κλεοπάτρας και την Αίγυπτο; Ή στο τέλος τέλος, δείξτε μου έναν άνθρωπο που δεν τρελαίνεται για μια δυνατή ιστορία αγάπης. Γιατί μη σας ξενίζει ο τίτλος ή το οπισθόφυλλο, ο Αύγουστος είναι πολλές ξεχωριστές ιστορίες αγάπης ραμμένες μαεστρικά σε μία απολαυστική ιστορική αφήγηση. Αγάπης προς την οικογένεια, αγάπης προς τις τέχνες τα γράμματα και τον πολιτισμό, αγάπης προς το καθήκον και τους πολίτες οι ζωές των οποίων κρέμονται από τα χέρια του κυβερνήτη τους, αγάπης προς τη μαγική φύση του άνθρωπο που ερωτεύεται διαρκώς πολεμώντας μανιασμένα στο όνομα του (κάθε φορά) μοναδικού, τρομαγμένος στην ιδέα και μόνο της μοναξιά του και της φθαρτότητα της ύλης του.
Ονόματα όπως Ιούλιος Καίσαρας, Βρούτος, Μάρκος Αντώνιος, Βιργίλιος, Νέρωνας, Ηρώδης, Δαμασκηνός, Οκτάβιος και φυσικά αυτό της Κλεοπάτρας, παρελάζουν μπροστά στα μάτια του μαγεμένου αναγνώστη μέσω επιστολών που γράφουν ο ένας προς τον άλλο. Επιστολές δολοπλόκων, κατασκόπων, φίλων αλλά και εχθρών, εξομολογήσεις φθόνου και μίσους αλλά φυσικά και άσβεστου έρωτα και πάθους. Όσο ψηλά και αν βρίσκεται κανείς στη σκάλα της εξουσίας, δε διαφέρει σε αντιδράσεις και αισθήματα με αυτόν που βρίσκεται στην άλλη μεριά της σκάλας. Τα πάντα γίνονται για τη συντριπτική κατάκτηση του αντικειμένου του πόθου που είναι κάθε φορά και άλλο. Για τον πλούτο, για την δόξα, για την οικογένεια. Για το καλό της Ρώμης.
Και εγώ δε σταμάτησα να γυρίζω τις σελίδες. Γρήγορα στην αρχή αλλά με σύνεση και προσοχή στο τέλος κάνοντας κάτι σαν οικονομία στις σελίδες του Αύγουστου για να μη μου τελειώσει!
Συγχαρητήρια στις εκδόσεις Gutenberg που έκριναν σωστά και μετέφρασαν για τη σειρά Aldina τόσο το Stoner όσο και τον Αύγουστο, κατάφεραν έτσι σε ένα μήνα μέσα να τοποθετήσω τον John Williams στους αγαπημένους μου συγγραφείς όλων των εποχών. Περιμένω με αγωνία και τα άλλα δύο του μυθιστορήματα στα Ελληνικά.
Profile Image for FotisK.
348 reviews153 followers
July 12, 2019
Η ματαιότητα, αυτό το λιμάνι στο τέλος του κόσμου, όπου όλοι καταφεύγουν έχοντας απωλέσει και τις τελευταίες εφήμερες ελπίδες τους, ήταν κάτι που πάντα με είλκυε στην τέχνη. Αυτό το ανέλπιδο βήμα στο κενό, με βλέμμα καθαρό, εν πλήρη επιγνώσει πως το τίποτα σε προσμένει με ανοιχτές αγκάλες, πως κι εσύ, όσο θαυμαστά τα επίγεια έργα σου, θα χαθείς στο πουθενά μαζί με τις αμέτρητες στρατιές θνητών που προηγήθηκαν, αποτελεί αέναα φόβητρο για εμάς τους κοινούς θνητούς.

Για τους άλλους, όμως, εκείνους που περιγελούν το μηδέν με την έμπνευση, επιχωματώνοντας το κενό με τη δημιουργία, η ματαιότητα αρδεύει την τέχνη τους, επιτρέποντάς τους να ψαύσουν τον τρόμο της απώλειας με χέρια γυμνά, μάτια ορθάνοιχτα στο σκότος, με περιφρόνηση συχνά για τις χαμένες ευκαιρίες, αλλά με "λύπη κιόλας και ευσπλαχνία". Η τέχνη τρέφεται τελικά από τον ζόφο, τον εγκυμονεί και τον ανέχεται, όχι γιατί είναι απλά και μόνο πεισιθάνατη, αλλά γιατί τον χωνεύει και τον εξεμεί, προσφέροντας σε εμάς τους λοιπούς τη "δι' ελέου και φόβου" λύτρωση, εκείνη τη "στενή πύλη και τεθλιμμένη οδό" που μας συγκρατεί οριακά επάνω από το χάος το οποίο καραδοκεί κάθε στιγμή να μας καταπιεί.

Ο πρόλογος για το μυθιστόρημα αυτό ήταν απαραίτητος, προκειμένου να μεταφέρω κάποια από τα αισθήματα και τις σκέψεις που μου υπέβαλε, τα οποία όμως δεν ήταν και τα μόνα. Ο "Αύγουστος" μπορεί εκ πρώτης να είναι ένα ιστορικό έργο, αλλά επ' ουδενί δεν είναι αποκομμένο από την κοσμοθεωρία, τους προβληματισμούς και το αφηγηματικό ύφος του Williams όπως τα γνωρίσαμε στον "Στόουνερ". Φτάνοντας στο μέσο και κινούμενος προς το τέλος, αναγνώρισα όλα εκείνα τα στοιχεία που απήλαυσα σε εκείνο το εξαιρετικό βιβλίο: τη χαμένη νεότητα, την αίσθηση του καθήκοντος που συνοδεύεται από το χαράμισμα μιας ολόκληρης ζωής και στο τέλος τη ματαιότητα, την κυριαρχία του τυχαίου (ή της μοίρας) που αποκαθηλώνει τα πάντα. Και, μόνη προοπτική, η καθαρτήριος τέχνη, ως επωδός.

Ομολογώ πως ως το δεύτερο μέρος του βιβλίου, υπήρξα συγκρατημένα θετικός, καθώς μου έλειπαν κάποια στοιχεία που διέτρεχαν τον "Στόουνερ" - συγκεκριμένα, η αφαίρεση κι ο μινιμαλισμός στην αφήγηση. Στον "Αύγουστο", ο Williams είναι πιο επεξηγηματικός, ίσως πληθωρικός για τα μέτρα του (μου). Αποκόμισα την αίσθηση πως όλα αναλύονταν κατά τι παραπάνω, καθιστώντας το εγχείρημα ελαφρώς πιο εύπεπτο από ό,τι όφειλε, κάτι που ομολογώ ότι δεν είχα νιώσει σε καμία σελίδα του "Στόουνερ".

Ίσως είναι κι ο βασικότερος λόγος που αρκετοί αναγνώστες είχαν βρει το βιβλίο εκείνο "επίπεδο", "βαρετό", "ανούσιο". Συγκεκριμένα, αυτή η εκούσια αφαίρεση…αφαιρούσε από τον αναγνώστη την άμεση/ εύκολη δυνατότητα ταύτισης με τον ήρωα που πελαγοδρομούσε ακροπατώντας στα συναισθήματα και τη ζωή του. Τα αυτά δεν ισχύουν όμως στην περίπτωση του "Αυγούστου", ο οποίος ανοίγεται, αφήνεται ευπροσήγορα στην ανάγκη ταύτισης του αναγνώστη, με τρόπο όμως συντεταγμένο και προσεκτικό, ακολουθώντας υφολογικά μια σαφώς πιο στρογγυλεμένη και ευέλικτη γραφή. Όταν μάλιστα ο "έτοιμος από καιρό" αναγνώστης προσεγγίζει το κορυφαίο 3ο μέρος, η μέθεξη είναι δεδομένη.

Δεδομένων αυτών, απλά θα προσυπογράψω κι εγώ με τη σειρά μου πως το "Στόουνερ" παραμένει το κορυφαίο του έργο, στη λογική που προανέφερα: Όσα υπονοούνται στην τέχνη, συχνά είναι σημαντικότερα από εκείνα που δηλώνονται απροκάλυπτα. Η λειτουργία (με τη θρησκευτική έννοια ομού) του λόγου οφείλει να είναι ανεπαίσθητη και υπαινικτική, αφήνοντας τον θηρευτή-αναγνώστη να πλεύσει στα αχαρτογράφητα νερά, χωρίς μπούσουλα άλλο πλην της προσωπικής του αισθητικής, ενώ ο συγγραφέας παραμένει εκουσίως στη σκιά, φωτίζοντας ελαφρώς τα νυχτοπερπατήματά του από παράγραφο σε παράγραφο.

Και επειδή καμία έννοια, αξία και κρίση δεν υφίσταται αυθύπαρκτη στον κόσμο ετούτο παρά μόνο συγκρινόμενη με ετέρα ομοειδή, ο "Αύγουστος" είναι ένα εξαίρετο μεν βιβλίο, υπολείπεται δε σαφώς του "Αδριανού Απομνημονεύματα" της Μ. Γιουρσενάρ – ενός από τα σημαντικότερα μυθιστορήματα (ανεξαρτήτως κατηγορίας) βαθιά πεσιμιστικού, θρηνητικού ύμνου για τη ματαιότητα των ανθρώπινων πεπραγμένων. Τούτο, βέβαια, δεν αφαιρεί ουδόλως από το έργο του Williams, μιας και η σύγκριση με το magnum opus της Γιουρσενάρ επιβεβαιώνει την αξία του. Υπάρχει, εν τέλει, μια τάξη στο έρεβος και εκείνοι που το υπηρετούν οφείλουν να το πράττουν κατανυκτικά και με πλήρη επίγνωση του ρόλου τους.

https://fotiskblog.home.blog/2019/07/...
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
978 reviews1,095 followers
December 20, 2019
Told in the format of fictional letters and journals, Williams put together a biography of Gaius Octavius, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. I knew that I would love this book, both because I am a total sucker for classical history, and because after reading “Stoner” (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), Williams’ talent is not something I question. And he could not have picked a more fascinating subject for his final novel: Augustus was a privileged but bookish young man, and while he had some military training, he was not the warrior his great uncle Julius Caesar was. He inherited Caesar’s titles and estate when he was only nineteen, and surprised pretty much everyone by not only rising to the occasion, but by solidifying his power with remarkable intelligence – and ruthlessness.

Williams begins his narrative a few months before the assassination of Julius Caesar, and covers Augustus’ entire reign, from the early struggles for power with the triumvirate, his military campaigns, his marriage, his friendships and ultimately, his death. If you know your Roman history, none of the events taking place on these pages will surprise you, but the quality of the writing, the strength of the characterization of those well-known historical figures and the depth and range of their human experience makes up for the lack of suspense (always a problem with historical fiction: we know how it ends!).

The epistolary format is beautiful and immersive, but it also means that readers with no background knowledge of Roman history and politics might be a little lost on occasion, as Williams provide little to no exposition – I kept a copy of Plutarch nearby, just in case I blanked out on who did what, when. But if you are already a fan of the so-called makers of Rome, this is a delightful recreation of their style of writing, and a vivid reimagining of key moments of Roman history. The many perspectives on this story also draw a complex, multi-faceted portrait of Augustus, and shows the complicated blend of flaws and strengths that such a man must have been to have reigned over the Empire for as long as he did. I understand why Williams chose to use Augustus’s voice only at the end (more on that later), but I admit I would have liked to see the events through his eyes a few times more.

I have always been fascinated by the eloquence and the intensity of the well-known figures of the early Roman Empire. It’s impossible to read Cicero, Plutarch or even Julius Caesar’s own writing without being awed by the (potentially exaggerated, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt) verve with which they express themselves and praise or insult each other. Williams was obviously fond of their tone as well, because he captures it in the fictional letters with a realism that impressed me. Compared to some, Augustus as written by Williams is a reserved and cold-seeming man, his strong self-discipline holding back his emotions – but we see that this struggle of mind over passion costs him dearly, especially when it comes to his only daughter Julia.

Julia’s story is that of a woman torn between her duty, as daughter of the Emperor, and her desire to simply live her life. And Augustus’s decisions regarding her are those of a man equally torn between wanting what is best for his beloved city, and what is best for his equally beloved daughter – whom he had nicknamed his “little Rome”. They can seem cold on paper, those two titans of history, but through Julia’s diary entries, Williams summons the strength of their personalities and depth of their feelings masterfully.

The final section, narrated by Augustus, is an incredibly moving reflection on ageing and dying, on looking back at life and seeing things so differently from how we did when we were young.

Just like “Stoner”, this is a great novel, with a quiet and contemplative tone, that fans of historical fiction will love, and fans of good books in general ought to check out. If I have one complain, its that I wished it was longer: I would have loved even more details about Augustus’ reign and the fascinating and intricate characters that surrounded him through his life. I’m going to go re-watch “Rome” now…
Profile Image for Howard.
318 reviews224 followers
September 21, 2021
“Neither Stoner [1965] nor Augustus [1972] is any less or more achieved than the other; they are simply different works by a remarkable writer working at the very height of his powers.” – John McGahern, introduction to Augustus

**********

Where to begin? I guess the place to begin would be to explain why I read this book. I chose it because it was on our friend Ted’s TBR list. I sincerely wish that he had read it and that I in turn could have enjoyed one of his unique and entertaining reviews.

I should also say that I agree with what John McGahern wrote above, but adding Butcher’s Crossing (1960) to the mix. That would cover all the novels that John Williams wrote, with one exception, that being his debut novel, Nothing But the Night (1948), which I have never read, and probably never will. Since he disowned the book I’ll take his word that it isn’t worth my time.

It is not surprising that today Williams is highly respected and that three of his four novels are best-sellers. The irony, however, is that he published his last novel in 1972, but the respect and popularity that he finally received did not take place until forty years later. It finally occurred when Stoner was reissued by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 2013. It was at that point that the book finally found an audience and it became a publishing phenomenon that led to a reappraisal of Williams’ work.

A year later, NYRB reissued Augustus. That novel, at the time that it was originally published, did garner some notice, certainly more than the others when they were first published, for it won the National Book Award for fiction in 1973, though it had to share the honor with John Barth’s Chimera. The publicity he received was fleeting, however, and the honor did nothing to increase his popularity or to promote book sales (upon release it had sold under 2,000 copies and no more than 10,000 after winning the award). That only came about when Stoner was reissued forty years later. Unfortunately, Williams never personally experienced his newfound fame for he had died almost twenty years earlier.

Critics have pointed out that all four of his novels are so different that they could have been written by four different writers. He wrote his debut novel, Nothing But the Night, during his down time while serving as a radio operator in the Army Air Corps during WWII. According to the publisher’s blurb, “[i]n the person of Arthur Maxley, Williams investigates the terror and the waywardness of a man who has suffered an early traumatic experience. As a child, Maxley witnessed a scene of such violence and of such a nature that the evocation of Greek tragedy is inescapable.”

Butcher’s Crossing is about a mythic buffalo hunt in the nineteenth century American West, while Stoner is a quiet book about a quiet man, a University of Missouri professor in the mid-twentieth century, an everyman who soldiers on no matter what heartbreak and disappointment comes his way.

And then there is Augustus, set in ancient Rome during the reign of the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. The book is set in a totally different time and setting that certainly differentiates it from the other books, but it is its style and structure that makes it unique and sets it even more apart.


“[Augustus] is a feast of research and a triumph of style; as serious, restrained, and magisterial a voice as any in American fiction.” – Hannah Niemeier, The New Criterion


Augustus is unlike any work of fiction that I have ever read. And that isn’t because it is an epistolary novel based on letters, journal entries, military reports and orders, because I have read a handful of those, it is because it is an epistolary novel that is so epic in scope. It is an account of the forty-year reign of Augustus, an era in which the Roman Empire nearly doubled in size, extending all the way from Britain to India.

It is a tribute to the audacity of Williams that he thought such a book was possible. He wrote in a short Author’s Note that:

[S]ome of the errors of fact in this book are deliberate. I have changed the order of several events; I have invented where the record is incomplete or uncertain; and I have given identities to a few characters whom history has failed to mention….With a few exceptions, the documents that constitute this novel are of my own invention…. But if there are truths in this work, they are truths of fiction rather than of history. I shall be grateful to those readers who will take it as it is intended – a work of imagination.


Anyone, however, who wants to do a little investigating, will discover that the fiction is solidly grounded in fact. For Williams did the necessary research – much of it in Rome – and labored over the book for seven years before it was published.

His decision to suppress his own voice and let the people speak for themselves has the effect of humanizing the large number of characters who populate the story. In an interview, Williams said, “I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them. I didn’t want to have a twentieth-century vision of the Roman times. So the epistolary form lets the people speak for themselves.”

A Washington Post critic called Augustus “the finest historical novel ever written by an American.” Williams was only fifty-years old when the book was published and he lived another twenty years, but he never wrote another book.

Thank you, Ted.
Profile Image for Intellectual_Thighs.
233 reviews331 followers
October 19, 2020
Το πιο σημαντικό -κατά τη γνώμη μου- όφελος του αναγνώστη είναι ότι σταδιακά, αφήνοντας τη λογοτεχνία να δράσει εντός του, αναπτύσσει ενσυναισθητικά αντισώματα που παλεύουν να τον κάνουν καλύτερο άνθρωπο.
Συγγραφείς σαν τον Γουίλιαμς, άνθρωποι που έχουν ευλογηθεί με μια βαθιά κατανόηση της ανθρώπινης φύσης και την ικανότητα να τη μετατρέπουν σε λογοτεχνική θεραπεία, θα πρέπει να είναι αυτοί που θα στρεφόμαστε για να μας κάνουν καλά/καλύτερους και βιβλία σαν αυτό, τέτοια αριστουργηματικά συμπυκνώματα ζωής, καλό θα ήταν να είναι στο ντουλαπάκι πρώτων βοηθειών μας. Γι αυτό και η αναβίωση του έργου του Γουίλιαμς την τελευταία δεκαετία στην Ευρώπη και εδώ στην Ελλάδα από τις Gutenberg, είναι πολύ σημαντική. Γιατί οι εκδοτικοί, φέρουν τη μεγαλύτερη ευθύνη για το σταφφ που διακινείται και άρα για τους αναγνώστες που γινόμαστε.
Καταρχάς το όλο εγχείρημα ΘΕ Ω ΡΗ ΤΙ ΚΑ είναι εγχειρίδιο μιας προδιαγεγραμμένης αποτυχίας: ένα βιβλίο για τη Ρώμη, με δεκάδες ονόματα που εναλλάσσονται και περιπλέκονται, σε μορφή επιστολών, με μεγάλο όγκο, χρονολογίες, αληθινά γεγονότα μπλεγμένα με φανταστικά. Ο Γουίλιαμς όμως άπλωσε το ouija board του και κάλεσε τους νεκρούς να μιλήσουν μέσα από επιστολές, απομνημονεύματα, ημερολόγια. Και το εγχείρημα έγινε μυσταγωγία.
Το πρώτο μέρος του βιβλίου περιγράφει τη μεταμόρφωση του Οκτάβιου σε Αύγουστο, μέσα από δολοπλοκίες, πολιτικά παιχνίδια, στρατηγικούς δεσμούς, χειραγώγηση, εμφύλιους και επεκτατικούς πολέμους, ανθρώπους που αλλάζουν ρόλους, ένα πέιτζ τέρνερ Χάουζ οφ Καρντς μέιντ ιν ένσιεντ Ρόουμ.
Πρωταγωνίστρια του δεύτερου κομματιού, είναι η κόρη του Αύγουστου, η Ιουλία, που βρίσκεται εξόριστη σε ένα νησί και βλέπουμε εδώ μια άλλη Κίρκη προδομένη από έναν κόσμο αντρών, όπως ίσως θα ήθελε να την έχει γράψει η Μίλλερ.
Το τρίτο και για εμένα πιο μεστό κομμάτι του βιβλίου, είναι το τελευταίο ταξίδι και ο απολογισμός ζωής του Αύγουστου, όπου όπως και στον Στόουνερ, ο Γουίλιαμς δίνει μια αριστουργηματική έξοδο γεμάτη υπαρξιακά έμπλαστρα, φιλοσοφικές ενέσεις και αλοιφές σοφίας. Κλείνοντας τον Αύγουστο, κυριαρχεί η αίσθηση ότι μπήκε μέσα σου μια δραστική ουσία που λειτουργεί. Και ΑΥΤΟ θα πρέπει να είναι πάντα το ζητούμενό μας ως αναγνώστες.
Profile Image for Lizz.
200 reviews50 followers
April 3, 2021
I don’t write reviews.

Wow. Where have I been? Obviously living in a world without the knowledge of this great book. I was enthralled by Augustus. I’m a big fan of the Claudius novels by Graves and found this a logical part of the whole of Roman historical fiction.

I have a beautiful love/hate relationship with the Roman Empire. It’s grotesque, yet I can’t look away. Imagining it makes one feel dirty in a way that shouldn’t be viewed in a positive light. I suppose I feel this way about many things I see. I’m the consummate voyeur.

Williams did a brilliant job of reporting the history while detailing characters no one could ever truly know. He struck the perfect balance. These are people I’ve met, that we’ve all been acquainted with. Of course as we watch the decline of another empire the similarities are striking. The repetition of history is mind-numbing.

I realize that I don’t understand “ambition.” I wish to be comfortable, but on a very fundamental no-frills level. The very notion of attempting to negotiate one’s way into a position of power and keeping it, is foreign to me. I love my bed and am quite happy to know my chances of being poisoned for that love are slim to none.
Profile Image for Charles.
174 reviews
January 21, 2021
One of the most beautiful gestures John Williams extends his readers in Augustus consists of taking for granted that they can picture the fabled city of Rome and the occasional countryside location.

I find we all have adequate images in our mind’s eye of a place like ancient Rome, if not in minute detail at least in a general sense, and as a gift from the author’s intelligence to yours, there are no tedious descriptions in this book; whenever I encounter something like this in fine literature, I feel like a kindness was done to me.

Distracting you from the official scenes and sun-kissed settings, which remain no less present and inspiring, Williams suggests instead that readers turn their gaze elsewhere and reflect, with Augustus Caesar and his entourage, on the human condition. Many people take turns expressing themselves in Augustus and they all come alive with natural ease. A soft-spoken wit ripples across exchanges, a smooth cut to the chase often ends things brilliantly. This is the John Williams I loved in Stoner, but even better. Needless to say, Augustus is a huge success with me.

Making this an epistolary novel means a succession of documents comes into play to give the story wings. Again, Williams takes pains to keep things tidy and on the move, setting up a sustained and engaging flurry of fragments of memoirs, notes from journals, extracts of official reports and, most of all, adequately short letters. Perfectly accessible yet deliciously written, these documents are fictional, the vast majority of them. They manage not to come in the way of talented storytelling – who wants a bureaucratic novel? – and personalities quickly expand.

In Augustus, young Gaius Octavius inherits the reins of the Roman empire from Julius Caesar, his great-uncle and daily mentor, an event precipitated by the powerful ruler’s assassination. Not yet twenty years of age, educated in the matters of the Legion and the Senate but not especially eager and certainly not ready to take over anything of such magnitude as Rome itself, our modest hero makes a brusque new entrance into a world of expansionist politics and old family money, to become in fact its very focal point. He considers matters as coldly as he can, says little at first, looks within himself, finds in there a regular man and not a superhero, and keeps around his person a handful of lifelong friends. He would, in time, succeed in bringing peace to Rome. He would also become a father, among other things. Octavius, growing into Augustus Caesar, develops a very human presence, thanks to John Williams. Essentially, the man puts one foot in front of the other and makes his way up; this is less the spectacle of it than its miracle.

John Williams proves rock solid, once again. But also tender, once more. He's at the top of his game in Augustus. Five stars.

The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy.

Do not mistake me. I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.
Profile Image for Neale .
285 reviews124 followers
February 13, 2020
Thanks to Howard's wonderful review reminding me of another lost book in the lost account. This book is brilliant, whether you are a fan of Ancient Rome or Roman History (which I am), or not, this book is such an enjoyable read. :-)
Profile Image for Eirini Proikaki.
327 reviews106 followers
August 30, 2017
Μετά τον Στόουνερ,άλλο ένα υπέροχο αλλά και τόσο διαφορετικό βιβλίο απο τον Τζον Γουίλιαμς τον νέο μου λογοτεχνικό έρωτα.
Σπάνια διαβάζω δυο βιβλία απο τον ίδιο συγγραφέα σε τόσο σύντομο χρονικό διάστημα αλλά δεν μπόρεσα να αντισταθώ στη γοητεία της αρχαίας Ρώμης με την οποία ασχολείται ο Γουίλιαμς σε αυτό το βιβλίο και συγκεκριμένα με την γέννηση της Ρωμαϊκης Αυτοκρατορίας και την ζωή του πρώτου αυτοκράτορα Οκταβιανού.
Ο Ιούλιος Καίσαρας δολοφονείται κι εμείς παρακολουθούμε τα επακόλουθα μέσα απο επιστολές και αναμνήσεις διαφόρων ατόμων που έζησαν απο κοντά όλη τη μάχη που έδωσε ο νεαρός Οκτάβιος για να φανει αντάξιος της κληρονομιας και του ονόματος που του άφησε ο θετός του πατέρας.Φίλοι,εχθροί,η κόρη του ,όλοι βάζουν ένα λιθαράκι σε αυτό το μωσαϊκο και μας αποκαλύπτουν σιγά σιγά μια επική ιστορία.Πως κατάφερε αυτό το ασθενικό παιδί να φτιάξει και να εδραιώσει μια τεράστια αυτοκρατορία κόντρα σε τόσες ίντριγκες και στρατιωτικές απειλές;Τι χρειαστηκε να θυσιάσει;
Η ιστορία είναι λίγο πολύ γνωστή στους περισσότερους πιστεύω ,η κόντρα με τον Αντώνιο και την Κλεοπάτρα,με τον Πομπήιο,οι μάχες,οι μακιαβελικές ίντριγκες...αλλά ο τρόπος με τον οποίο την μεταφέρει ο συγγραφέας μέσα απο πολλες οπτικές γωνίες είναι ,θα έλεγα,αριστουργηματικός.Ο ίδιος ο αυτοκράτορας δεν μας μιλάει μέχρι το τέλος του βιβλίου οπου λίγο πριν πεθάνει γράφει μια επιστολή-απολογισμό της ζωής του.
Αυτό που αγαπώ στη γραφή του Γουίλιαμς είναι ο τρόπος με τον οποίο προσεγγίζει τα συναισθήματα των ηρώων του με μια ευαισθησία που με αγγίζει βαθύτατα.Αυτή τη φορά μας μιλάει και με τη φωνή μιας γυναίκας.Της μοιχαλίδας κόρης του αυτοκράτορα, Ιουλίας που έγινε πιόνι στα παιχν��δια εξουσίας και κατέληξε εξόριστη σε ένα ξερονήσι και στο ημερολόγιο της μιλάει για την μοναξιά της,την παραίτηση της απο τη ζωή,τoν τρόπο που μετά απο δυο γάμους συμφέροντος κατάλαβε οτι έχει κι αυτή δικαίωμα στον έρωτα και στις χαρές του σεξ αν και ως γυναίκα έπρεπε να το πληρώσει ακριβά.
Το βιβλίο θα κυκλοφορήσει στα ελληνικά σε λίγο καιρό απο τη σειρά Aldina των εκδόσεων Gutenberg και θα ελεγα σε όσους αγαπούν το ιστορικό μυθιστόρημα να μην το χάσουν.Κατα τη γνώμη μου είναι must-read.
Profile Image for Nickolas the Kid.
298 reviews70 followers
August 12, 2020
Ο Καίσαρας Οκταβιανός Αύγουστος ήταν ο πρώτος, ίσως και ο σημαντικότερος των Αυτοκρατόρων της αρχαίας Ρώμης του οποίου το λογοτεχνικό πορτρέτο ανέλαβε να μας το παρουσιάσει με τον μοναδικό συγγραφικό του τρόπο ο Τζον Γουίλιαμς.
Ο συγγραφέας του αριστουργηματικού "Στόουνερ" γράφει για αυτή την σημαντική ιστορική προσωπικότητα μένοντας όσο το δυνατόν περισσότερο σε ένα ιστορικό πλαίσιο, χωρίς να θυμίζει όμως το μυθιστόρημα του ιστορικό σύγγραμα. Αυτό το καταφέρνει με τον μοναδικό τρόπο γραφής του, ο οποίος είναι σχεδόν τέλειος σε μορφή, μινιμαλιστικός και κυρίως ουσιαστικός. Όπως και στον Στόουνερ - μια τελείως διαφορετική προσωπικότητα από τον Αύγουστο - έτσι και σε αυτό το βιβλίο ο συγγραφέας δομεί σταδιακά έναν ιδιαίτερο λογοτεχνικό ήρωα που τον απασχολούν τα ίδια ακριβώς θέματα που απασχολούν και τον ίδιο και στα δύο μυθιστορήματα του.
Ο Οκτάβιος είναι ένα κομμάτι της προσωπικότητας του ίδιου του συγγραφέα, όπως άλλωστε και ο Στόουνερ. Ο Ρωμαίος αυτοκράτορας είναι ένας ήσυχος άνθρωπος, πολύ οργανωτικός και κυρίως εσωστρεφής. Ξέρει πως πρέπει να κυβερνήσει, στέκεται δυνατός και ακλόνητος μπρος στις θυσίες που πρέπει να κάνει και ας γνωρίζει εκ προοιμίου πως η επιτυχία του σαν ηγέτης θα του κοστίσει την ευτυχία και την αρμονία της προσωπικής του ζωής.
Ο Οκτάβιος είναι επίσης ένας άνθρωπος με κουλτούρα και μόρφωση. Τον εκτιμούν οι μεγάλοι ποιητές της εποχής και ο ίδιος δείχνει πως πιστεύει στο έργο τους. Άλλωστε πολύ πριν η μοίρα αποφασίσει για την τύχη του, ο ίδιος ήθελε να γίνει ποιητής. Σε αντίθεση όμως με τον Στόουνερ, ο Οκτάβιος δεν θα μπορέσει να αλλάξει την "επαγγελματική" του σταδιοδρομία όπως θα ήθελε. Κι όμως! Θα καταφέρει παρόλα αυτά, να μετατρέψει όλα τα φαινομενικά μειονεκτήματα του σε πλεονεκτήματά, μεταλλάζοντας την προσωπικότητα του και εκπλήσσοντας εχθρούς και φίλους να κερδίσει τον σεβασμό όλων και να γίνει ο πρώτος των πρώτων.
Ακολουθώντας λοιπόν τις επιστολές, τις διατάξεις και τα προσωπικά ημερολόγια των χαρακτήρων του βιβλίου καταρχάς μαθαίνουμε για μια ιστορική περίοδο άκρως ενδιαφέρουσα και σημαντική για την ανθρωπότητα αλλά και για την Ελλάδα και κατά δεύτερον γνωρίζουμε έναν λογοτεχνικό ήρωα ο οποίος θα μπορούσε να τοποθετηθεί στο πάνθεον όλων αυτών των μεγάλων λογοτεχνικών ηρώων της παγκόσμιας λογοτεχνίας, έστω και με κάποια καθυστέρηση μερικών δεκαετιών.
Ο Τζον Γουίλιαμς ήταν ένας μεγάλος συγγραφέας αν και παραγνωρισμένος επίτηδες. Διαβάζοντας πρώτα τον Στόουνερ και έπειτα τον Αύγουστο κατάλαβα πως ο συγγραφέας μπορούσε να χειριστεί με ευκολία την οποιαδήποτε θεματολογία. Ο τρόπος της γραφής του καθώς και η σχολαστικότητα της επιμέλειας των έργων του, του δίνουν την ευχέρεια να δημιουργεί ανθρώπινους και σύγχρονους χαρακτήρες για κάθε εποχή αλλά και τα έργα του να έχουν οικουμενικό χαρακτήρα.
Όσοι λοιπόν αγάπησαν τον Στόουνερ θα πλησιάσουν με ευκολία στην αρχαία Ρώμη για να ανακαλύψουν τι είναι αυτό που έκανε τον Αύγουστο τόσο σημαντική προσωπικότητα, ενώ αντίθετα όσοι γνώρισαν πρώτα τον Οκτάβιο θα καταλάβουν πολύ εύκολα τον Στόουνερ και τις επιλογές του.
5/5
Profile Image for Maria.
78 reviews72 followers
July 7, 2017
John Williams' three novels are distinctly different from each other. Often, if you like one book by a specific author, it's safe to assume that if you pick up another, you will be served something similar - in topic, tone or language. But each of Williams' novels are - without compromise - true to their own, unique concept.

So is the case with Augustus. While Stoner is mostly a campus novel and Butcher's Crossing a western, Augustus is an epistolary novel on the rise and reign of Gaius Octavius, known as Emperor Augustus. In addition to letters, it also contains journal entries, military orders, reports and autobiography excerpts. The emperor himself is, for the most part, seen from the outside. The people telling the story are mostly nobles, politicians or military leaders, but there are also some regular citizens that gets to tell their stories. Together, these writings make a choir of voices that encompasses the whole of Augustus' life. The first half of the book describes Augustus' rise to power, the second half his reign and the life of his daughter, Julia.

The fact that Williams managed to put all of this together in a way that works so well, is nothing less than impressive. Not once while reading could I say to myself "this could have been handled differently" or "this should have been shortened down". I know that some of the historical events in the book are not accurate, but the world building is excellent and gives us a believable version of ancient roman society.

Augustus is, as far as roman emperors go, an enigma. He hid his motivation, his plans, his ambitions. He was a very private person, difficult to read. Maybe this explains Williams' interest in him? He would make a good candidate for a literary main character. An author can fill this character with his own imagination. His secrecy and historical unknowability makes him moldable.

In spite of all this, Augustus' only child, Julia, is maybe the most fascinating character in the book. Her journal entries looks back on her entire life, and like most of the other characters, it was a very intense and dramatic one. She tells us of her development from child to adult in more detail than the letters describing Augustus. We see her married several times and then discovering her own identity outside of the constricting life of a roman noble - a short lived freedom that is soon snatched away from her. All of this is framed with the experience and wisdom of the much older Julia, looking back on it all.

We can be certain that Williams' Augustus loves his daughter very much. And his closest friendships are also extremely important to him. But Augustus is very self disciplined, and sometimes cold - he is willing to do whatever needs to be done to keep the Empire together and secure his own power. He uses his family and friends as pawns, arranging marriages for them to secure allegiances - and he does this in several rounds. Both Julia and Augustus' sister suffers because of this.

Was Augustus a good guy or a bad guy? Was he a hero and the gathering force of the Empire, or was he a dubious, rotten aristocrat willing to do anything to gain power? The question of what power does to people is an important theme throughout the book. Without concluding definitely what kind of person Augustus was, the book brings out all the nuances and all the doubt troubling a person with so much power - and so much to lose.

It is exciting to see the power struggles in the Roman Empire, especially in the first half of the book.
Williams does try to describe a time where peoples' psyches and world view are distinctly different from our own, but at the same time keeping the characters recognizable for modern readers. For the most part, this works, but although the book is believable, it's definitely very difficult to know how people, so remote in time from ourselves, reasoned, thought and felt. The accuracy is difficult to determine. Not that it really matters. This is an excellent novel.
Profile Image for Edward.
414 reviews389 followers
August 2, 2018
Augustus is, in my opinion, the best of Williams’s novels. Augustus was such an instrumental figure in Roman history, though he is often overlooked in popular memory in favour of the more turbulent and often shocking times that came before and after his reign of relative stability. But his story is truly remarkable: how did this unknown boy of nineteen, with little more than the promise of a name, manage to rise and overcome men with far more power and experience?

I think what makes this period of history so compelling is how well it encapsulates the human struggle. On display is the worst of human vice and depravity: the desire for wealth, power, glory, excess, violence – balanced by concerns of duty, order, honour, family, and love. The history of Rome plays out like the struggle of man against his own nature, and the rise of Rome itself represents in many ways the triumph of civilization over barbarism (flawed though this interpretation may be). By studying Roman politics we can understand something about the nature of power and the uncertain foundations on which it is built. The fall of the Roman republic forces us to question the stability of democratic systems and acknowledge the tendency for power to consolidate. This tendency had been a visible feature of Roman politics since Marius and Sulla, but the weakness was becoming apparent even in the Punic era with the elevation of figures like Scipio Africanus to a status above their peers. So, was Augustus a legendary figure who against all odds established an empire that would last for half a millennium, or was he simply playing his role in expediting the inevitable? It is true that he did provide stability and prosperity during his long reign, but it is questionable whether the survival of the Principate through the disastrous Julio-Claudian dynasty and the phases of extreme instability and corruption of the later empire were a result of the foundations laid by Augustus or simply the natural needs of the administration of such a vast and wealthy empire.

Regardless, Augustus gives us a glimpse into the mind of an undeniably fascinating figure. Though most of the story is told from the perspective of his family, friends and enemies, the final section of the novel is “authored” by Augustus himself. These final reflections were for me the most interesting part of the novel, as the simple questions of meaning and purpose - of how we live and how we relate to one another and the world - are as immediate, and the answers equally elusive for one who has lived as an Emperor, as they are for the rest of us.
Profile Image for Ian.
694 reviews65 followers
September 17, 2017
From what I understand John Williams only ever wrote 4 novels, but if so he was certainly an author who went for quality over quantity. This superbly written novel tells the life of Octavius Caesar through the device of (fictional) letters and journal entries written by the people around him. The introduction explains that Williams used this technique because he knew that in real life the Roman aristocracy were great letter writers.

The result is a fascinating character portrayal, in which Octavius is depicted as a man driven by duty and a sense of destiny to restore order to the rapidly disintegrating Roman Republic. Outwardly unemotional and calculating, he is not without feeling but is frequently forced by his position to act “against his nature”. Around him the other characters (most of them) plot and scheme towards their own advancements like players in a chess game, but one in which a false move means death. Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, Lepidus, Marcus Agrippa, and Livia all feature prominently, but perhaps the most interesting of the book’s characters is the Emperor’s daughter Julia. I greatly enjoyed those sections of the novel where she wrote in her journal. The famous poets of the time, Horace, Vergil and Ovid, all feature as well, though they mostly stand aside from the poltical intrigue.

One problem with writing a novel about the life of someone as famous as Octavius is that we all know the main outcomes in advance, which inevitably lessens the tension. The section involving Mark Anthony and Cleopatra is a good example. Mark Anthony is depicted as a bull-headed “man of action”, whilst in contrast Cleopatra is someone as calculating as Octavius himself. Her machinations, and those of her Chief Minister, are very skilfully plotted by the author, but ultimately we all know that Octavius was the victor. It’s for this reason only that I felt the book was a four rather than a five-star marking. An impressive achievement though, and a very enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Rod.
102 reviews58 followers
May 31, 2015
I've never been particularly interested in political novels or had any great fascination with ancient Rome, but this beautifully written novel held me transfixed nonetheless. It's a cliché to say it "brings history alive," but it does indeed bring history alive. Told in epistolary form as a compendium of letters and journal entries by characters both integral and incidental, we get to know Octavius Caesar the August from the perspective of those who love him and of those who despise him, but we don't hear directly from the titular character until near the end of the novel (and the end of his life), as he writes to an old friend and ruminates in moving fashion over his accomplishments and regrets, his beloved city of Rome, and the legacy he leaves behind. These multiple viewpoints give Augustus a richness and believability that almost makes one forget that one is reading a masterful work of historical fiction and not a collection of actual historical documents, yet it still reads like a novel, not a history. From a historical novel there is not much else one can ask.

Oh, and I just wanted to add that it seems as if this work gets short shrift compared to Williams' other novels, Stoner and Butcher's Crossing, possibly because they are on the great NYRB imprint and Augustus isn't, denying it that sort of instant cachet. I've read all three, and in my opinion Augustus is superior to the vaunted Stoner (which commits the sin of telling-and-not-showing a little too much for my taste, although it redeems itself somewhat through its sheer emotional impact) and to Butcher's Crossing (which is, frankly, just kind of dull). I would love to see more people reading and talking about it; it won the National Book Award, for crying out loud.
Profile Image for Tasos.
263 reviews39 followers
March 17, 2022
Το Στόουνερ ήταν υπεραρκετό για να κερδίσει τη λογοτεχνική αθανασία ο Τζον Γουίλιαμς και για να πω την αλήθεια, όταν το ξεκίνησα, δεν περίμενα ότι ο συγγραφέας θα είχε γράψει κάτι που να το φτάνει ή να το αγγίζει, αλλά σε κάτι τέτοιες περιπτώσεις χαίρομαι πάρα πολύ όταν διαψεύδομαι και το αποτέλεσμα ξεπερνά τις προσδοκίες μου.
Δεν τρελαίνομαι για τα ιστορικά μυθιστορήματα ή τις βιογραφίες των μεγάλων προσωπικοτήτων, αλλά εδώ δεν πρόκειται για μια συμβατική προσέγγιση σε αυτά τα είδη και ο Γουίλιαμς δεν ενδιαφέρεται να στήσει μια αγιογραφία ή να κάνει επίδειξη γνώσεων γεμίζοντας την αφήγηση με λεπτομέρειες από τη ζωή στη Ρωμαϊκή Αυτοκρατορία.
Αντίθετα, η πολυπρισματική προσέγγιση της εμβληματικής μορφής του Οκταβιανού Αύγουστου μέσα από τη φόρμα του επιστολικού μυθιστορήματος καταφέρνει με έναν απροσδόκητα μοντέρνο τρόπο να καταδείξει την αδυναμία που υπάρχει στην αναζήτηση της μοναδικότητας της ιστορικής αλήθειας.
Πίσω από τον αυτοκράτορα που ανακηρύχθηκε θεός υπήρχε τελικά ένας (ακόμη) άνθρωπος, αντιφατικός, αβέβαιος και τελικά μόνος απέναντι στις συνέπειες των επιλογών και των πράξεών του. Κι έτσι ο Καίσαρας γίνεται ένας μακρινός πρόγονος του Στόονερ και ο Γουίλιαμς συνθέτει αριστοτεχνικά το πορτρέτο ενός ακόμη άνδρα, μέσα από ετερόκλιτες πηγές που ακόμα κι αν καταφέρνουν να φωτίσουν τις αθέατες πτυχές της εξουσίας και του τιμήματος που έρχεται με αυτή, αφήνουν τον αναγνώστη να κάνει τη δική του αποτίμηση στο τέλος.
Η διαχρονικότητα της προβληματικής του Γουίλιαμς επιβεβαιώνεται και από το γεγονός ότι το βιβλίο διαβάζεται άνετα κι ως ένα συναρπαστικό πολιτικό θρίλερ και μπορούν εύκολα να γίνουν παραλληλισμοί με τα σύγχρονα παιχνίδια εξουσίας, ειδικά στην Αμερική. Η τελευταία πρόταση, άλλωστε, μία από τις πιο δυνατές που έχω διαβάσει ποτέ, σε αφήνει με το στόμα ανοιχτό για το τι τελικά ξέρουμε ή καταλαβαίνουμε από μία πραγματικότητα που πάντα ξεφεύγει από την δική μας αντίληψη.
Profile Image for Stratos.
846 reviews83 followers
March 24, 2018
Μετά το "Στόουνερ" άλλο ένα καταπληκτικό βιβλίο του συγγραφέα. Αν και στην αρχή η ιστορία ήταν λίγο περίπλοκη, με το διάβασμα αποκτούσε ένα ρυθμό για να φτάσει στην κορύφωση στο τέλος με τον απολογισμό του α��τοκράτορα Αυγούστου. Απαραίτητο για κάθε φίλο του καλού βιβλίου ο οποίος διαβάζοντας το θα πρέπει να έχει δίπλα του ένα στυλό σημειώνοντας τα νοήματα της αφήγησης. Οπως π.χ.:

"Αν δεν τον διαφθείρει ο θαυμασμός των συνομηλίκων του, αγοριών και κοριτσιών, θα το επιτύχουν σίγουρα οι φιλοδοξίες των κολάκων" σελ. 27

"Ο ηθικολόγος είναι το πιο άχρηστο και καταφρονητέο πλάσμα. Είναι άχρηστος επειδή σπαταλά τις δυνάμεις του κρίνοντας και όχι αποκτώντας γνώσεις, επειδή απλούστατα οι κρίσεις είναι εύκολες ενώ οι γνώσεις δύσκολες. Και είναι καταφρονητέος επειδή οι κρίσεις του καθρεφτίζουν τη δική του εικόνα, που με την άγνοια και την υπεροψία του πολύ θα ήθελε να επιβάλει στον κόσμο" σελ. 227

"Δεν αποφάσισα ν΄ αλλάξω τον κόσμο από τον εύκολο ιδεαλισμό και την αυτάρεσκη πίστη στη δικαιοσύνη, που είναι πάντα οι προάγγελοι της αποτυχίας" σελ. 469

Και άλλα πολλά πολλά που θα σας γοητεύσου, προβληματίσουν σ΄ ένα ταξίδι στον εσώτερο ανθρώπινο κόσμο...


Profile Image for Ned.
292 reviews120 followers
November 22, 2020
Upon completion of this book, I am certain now that this stye is my favorite kind of novel, the “historical” type. I need to learn about a real time, place and, most importantly, the people in order to fully enjoy a novel. Augustus thus hits on all cylinders. Although interested, I have read very little of the Roman empire, and the reign of Augustus Caesar is perhaps the most exemplary of the famed republic and the wrenching it took upon immediately after the ascent of Julius Caesar and his political assassination. Most of my knowledge is based on Shakespeare’s account and musings about the romans from my reading of the new testament (KJV of course) and the stories of gladiators and general debauchery that predictably develop on the heals of “world” dominion and success. Of course, the romans built upon the democratic philosophies of the Greeks many years before, and became the practical manifestation of a state no longer controlled by dictators, emperors and monarchs. As with the British and American versions to come, these were accomplished by colonization and from the might of the sword exercised and superb organization. This led to their millennia of success and, as our author exposes so well, the inevitable decline.

Williams is simply a brilliant artist of the written word and this book showed unusual creativity in the way the story is told, entirely through letters and journals back and forth between all the many players. The political infighting and intrigue are exposed from multiple vantages. Our main character, Octavious (all these personages go by multiple names), the nephew of Julius Caesar, was thrust on the stage upon the shocking news of his uncle’s death at the hands of his former colleagues. Somewhat sickly, and unimposing, Augustus is cunning and intelligent as he accumulates allies and gradually seizes the power bequeathed to him from his uncle. He steps into a den of rattlesnakes and deftly avoids pitfalls by remaining calm and staying absent from the foment of revolution in the city of Rome. Those loyal to his uncle are equally treacherous (enter Marc Anthony and his alliance with the Egyptian Cleopatra) as are the old family senators who deposed his uncle. Caught in the middle, Octavius plays both sides and emerges as a brilliant tactician and, ultimately, demonstrating those leadership qualities so necessary. Holding together the empire requires the most skillful politically maneuvering imaginable, and this is where his genius shines. Always, and in every action, his main goal is the preservation of the state of the Roman empire, as opposed to his personal wealth and comfort. Heavy is the head upon which the crown sits, and Augustus suffers throughout his reign, but always comforted by a belief in his work toward the greater good.

Many interesting facts came out in the story. Of course they were all flatlanders back then, their world was mostly in the Mediterranean and the “borders” of which they were always battling the barbarians (Spain the west, Egypt to the east and especially to the north where the Germanic hordes had no physical barriers to entry). Once Augustus put down the Roman civil wars that erupted from the wake of his uncle’s death, much of his life was protecting the borders and managing the vipers in the heart of his beloved Rome.

Another shocking revelation was the degree of marriage within bloodlines (pretty much everything went except brothers and sisters) and the fact that all weddings were political. When expedient, Augustus would simply order a divorce and then a marriage, which he did to his most beloved daughter Julia, when necessary. This was expected by all parties as part of their duty to the great mother, Rome. The emperor dotes on his daughter, yet compels her to marry his stepson (Tiberius) who they both despise. It is necessary to keep the political factions balanced, however, so they both subserve their personal reprehension for the greater good of Rome. Ultimately, however, she falls in with a group of intellectuals and her (well known) adultery leads nearly to her death for treason (as ordered by her husband). Augustus manages to banish her to an island where her beauty and favor fades away in obscurity. He didn’t talk to her for the last 15 years of his long life (76!) and he carried that burden and grief to his deathbed.

The “poets” were highly esteemed as the storytellers and historians of their time, including Virgil and Horace. The well-known Cicero is treated as a dastardly politician (and enemy to his uncle and him) who is ultimately destroyed by Augustus. Nicolaus (that “little Jew”) in Palestine is held in special esteem, and is the recipient of many letters from the Emperor – I suspect this historical information was what Williams used to construct the timing and facts around the narrative.

As in “Stoner”, Williams is remarkably talented at the end of life stage of reflection as the body fails and the mind stays active. The final chapter is a letter from Augustus to his friend, his final document, where he wrestles with the question as to whether he has accomplished enough, or the right things. Remarkable that all great leaders have this doubt, perhaps this conscience is what fuels their ambition and talent throughout life. The construction of a successful government and many of the astonishing architectural and engineering feats of Rome were launched during the time of his reign. Of course, they bore fruit upon further expansion later (coins in the Thames, baths on the eastern coast of Britain, etc etc) after his death. Ironically, in the epilogue, Seneca holds out hope in the leadership of Nero (we know how that ends😊).

Perhaps the highest praise is that this book made me thirst for more (yesterday I picked up Graves’ “I Claudius”). I think of the author himself, between teaching assignments, meticulously researching and condensing and forming a pleasing narrative. Surely Williams became enamored of Augustus Caesar, and this got him through all the research and his heart quickened as he learned of this man’s impact on the world. Much in the way I read his great work of literature, 42 years later, after his own death).
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books332 followers
December 5, 2021
Though I majored in history at Berkeley and continue to read history in various forms, there are only two historical novels that I give five-stars, Killer Angels and this fine work by John Williams, Augustus. Historians naturally have a good deal of interest in Julius Caesar because of his love affair with Cleopatra, the dramatic elimination of his rivals as he rose to power and his sensational death, memorialized in Shakespeare. His triumph also marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. But I have consulted professional historians on this matter and they tell me Gaius Octavius Thurinus, who became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus as the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and then Caesar Augustus, was the greatest one of them all.

from the introduction....

"The epistolary form, so long associated with romantic subjects, is in fact ideally suited to Williams’s project. The portrait his novel creates, refracted through not only (invented) letters but also journal entries, senatorial decrees, military orders, private notes, and unfinished histories, is at once satisfyingly complex and appropriately impressionistic, subjective."

========

In his author's note, Williams makes it clear that the letters in this book are fabricated. (I'm not sure I was clear on that point when I read this book many years ago). But I am freshly impressed with the research he did to convey the there and then realism. Very important to do one's homework for a book like this.

=====

Since what I've written above, I've read "The Memoirs of Hadrian." So Hadrian is the third historical novel I give five stars. And perhaps on a lesser level, what Manny writes about the Memoirs of Hadrian could apply to Augustus.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book954 followers
May 20, 2014

Good historical fiction is some of the best fiction - this book didn't disappoint. Fans of Williams' Stoner and Butcher's Crossing will find plenty to love; the author's recognizable compact writing style and rich imagery are on display throughout this book.

A reader isn't required to have a vast knowledge of Roman history between 50 BC and 50 AD, but it certainly helps. Reading this book shortly after finishing Appian's Civil Wars was the right decision for me. Williams' particular talent allows him to create an epistolary work with numerous voices that are individually unique (Marc Antony's entries were my favorite and were written exactly how I envisioned he would write).

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for JimZ.
975 reviews427 followers
August 16, 2021
I had problems with this novel that a number of my GR friends did not have. I have not read their reviews yet because I wanted to write my review before perusing theirs…but I could see the number of stars they were giving this book. As well, newspaper and literary periodicals were effusive in their praise with one reviewer from the Los Angeles Times stating, “I have never before had occasion to use this term, but I can think of no other appropriate word of summation than to say that his ‘Augustus’ is a masterpiece” (Dan Wakefield, LA Times). ‘His’ refers to the author, John Williams.

The book won the National Book Award in 1973 fer chrissake! What is wrong with me?????!!!!

I’m especially not happy in giving this a 2-star review because I absolutely loved his earlier work, Stoner (1965, reissued in 1972, 2003, and 2006). But I have to be honest (including with myself). This was one of those books where I could not wait for it to end so I could be done with it. It was 305 pages in length. It told the story of Augustus Caesar (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.). It is a historical novel. Williams took some liberties with the facts. But he states that at the outset, and I had no problems with that.

Two main problems. I could not follow all the names (different characters). They were dropped in, here there and everywhere, and there were a lot of them. I could not keep track of them. Second was the way he told the story. The story was divided into three books. Each book had letters written from one person to another. The letter writers within a book would change. I guess this was a style meant to tell you about different people’s point of view of the situation at hand. Person A might describe a certain event, and events leading up to the events, and characters involved in the events, different than Person B. And indeed that is what happened in the letters. But I simply got overwhelmed. Also, I found a lot of the letters to be borrrrrrr-ing. There were a few parts of the book that were interesting but for me they came far and few between.

Rather than me perseverate anymore, I think I have had my say. Quite often I find myself on the periphery in reviewing a book, but I don’t feel so bad about it. I feel a bit bad about this because so many of my GR friends liked this book. Where did I go wrong … what did I miss? 🙁

Reviews (these reviews show how clearly I am on the periphery…they are all very good reviews and they were uber-enthusiastic about this historical novel):
https://www.nyrb.com/products/augustu... (A reviewer from the Washington Post called it “The finest historical novel ever written by an American.”
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/j...
https://www.cleavermagazine.com/augus...
https://lithub.com/trump-in-a-toga-on...
https://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2014/...
Profile Image for Apostolis Kalogirou.
42 reviews30 followers
January 9, 2021
Στις ποδηλατικές διαδρομές συνήθως σταματάω τα γκρουπ για διάλειμμα σε διάφορα ιστορικά και αρχαιολογικά σημεία της περιοχής. Τα αγαπημένα μου είναι το μνημείο του Αυγούστου και η Νικόπολη στην Πρέβεζα. Ενα trivia που μου αρέσει πάντα να λέω είναι το εξής:
Στον λόφο στην Σμυρτούλα, τον οποίο διασχίζουμε για να φτάσουμε στο μνημείο, ο Οκταβιανος πριν την τελική μάχη με την Κλεοπάτρα και τον Αντώνιο, συνάντησε έναν χωρικό με τον γάιδαρο του. Οταν πέρασε δίπλα του, ο Αύγουστος τον ρώτησε το όνομα του. Νικων απάντησε ο χωρικός. Και τον γάιδαρο σου; Ρώτησε ο Αύγουστος. Ευτυχιο, απάντησε ο χωρικός και συνέχισε την πορεία του. Ο Οκταβιανός θεώρησε τα ονόματα τους θετικούς οιωνούς για την μάχη και μόλις κέρδισε, έχτισε προς τιμήν τους δύο αγάλματα. Τα ονόμασε Νικωνας και Ευτύχιος, τα οποία δυστυχώς καταστράφηκαν στην Κωνσταντινουπολη κατα τη Σταση του Νικα το 532 μ.Χ.

Πολύ ωραίο βιβλίο.. Ημουνα ανάμεσα σε αυτό και στον Στοουνερ το οποίο βέβαια θα διαβάσω σίγουρα αφου ο συγγραφέας με κατενθουσίασε! Δεν θέλω να πω τίποτα περισσότερο γιατί θα το κουράσω το ζήτημα και δεν έχει νόημα κανένα.
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